"So she's gonna meet you here at around eight?"

"Yeah. We're just going to dinner, nothing special."

"All right. Just don't run late on me again."

"Yes, master." Sadami replied with a tad of snark – it seemed living with Tobi without the censorship of parents was wearing off on him. The latter young man just shook his head and sighed. "You gonna read all night again?"

"I dunno. Depends on what brat wants to do. And if fuzzball decides to have another accident." They both looked at Howl, who was resting by Tobi's bed. His eyes just looked up at them nonchalantly. "It's not snowing, but the roads are probably icy. Be careful."

"I gotcha." Sadami grinned. "Want me to bring you back anything if we go somewhere good?"

Tobi shrugged; he was on his laptop looking for a song to listen to while he played some trivia games. He'd been lost in that stupid journal that he forgot where he'd left off in his novel. He needed a break from it anyway. "I can make something here."

Sadami took his phone out to check the time, "Okay… I went ahead and got ready. It's only seven-thirty, but she said she might catch an earlier train."

"All right." He casually replied. He was too absorbed in thought, trying to pry his mind away from the journal and the building they'd encountered to notice Sadami was trying to lead the conversation somewhere – desperately trying to drag out his departure, even if it was just to the bathroom. Tobi noticed his odd demeanor and pointed it out. "What's wrong?"

Sadami chose the rip-the-bandage-off method, whether it'd upset Tobi or not. "I've been thinking about a few nights ago, when you wandered off and had no idea you'd done it." Tobi's expression changed – neutral to immediate irritation. "I'm not bringing it up to—"

"—I don't want to talk about it."

"—But we need to!"

"Listen—"

"No, you listen!" There was a beat, they stared daggers through one another. Even Howl felt the atmosphere shift. Tobi's attention shifted elsewhere.

"Beat it, brat." He was not in the mood. Sadami turned to see Chikako standing at the door. "Sadami and I need to talk."

"I want to talk about this too." She said meekly.

"No, just stay out—"

"Am I part of this family or not?" She cut him off, ice in her tone. Even Sadami was startled. "I'm tired of keeping quiet when I'm just as upset as you both are! I know that you both know what it's like to have so many feelings and not know how to express them, but I'm sick of it! I'm just so sick of being silenced!" Chikako shouted.

Both young men were wide-eyed and amazed; it was unexpected indeed, but that didn't make them any less annoyed with each other.

"I was afraid too! We both kept thinking you might've gotten yourself hurt again."

Tobi stood up, now more imposing since he was the tallest one in the room. "Why don't the two of you just worry about yourselves!"

"Oh, all right, hypocrite!" Sadami shouted; he felt the intense, emotional atmosphere, and it was overwhelming him. "We'll mind our own business while someone stabs you in the stomach again!"

"That was months ago!"

"We were all in trouble weeks ago!"

"STOP." Chikako herself couldn't take it anymore. She pinched her forehead and tried to calm down. Howl bent his ears back and whined slightly. "I don't know what any of you want to hear – I just want to say something that'll make us all happy and solve our problems." Both boys just blinked; it was rare that Chikako was so responsive in these arguments, but even she had a breaking point. "But I guess I just can't solve them for either of you." She growled. "There's something that both of you are hiding; either from each other, or from yourselves. And you're hiding it from me too!"

"Everyone hides things, brat. It's a part of life. Not everyone has to know what you're thinking. Most of the time, it's better to just stay out of people's business." Tobi retorted hatefully. Sadami made no rebuttal against his argument, even if the way he stated it was a bit blunt. However, he just couldn't help himself.

"How would anyone know anyway? You're so closed off from everyone!" He calmly replied. They both glared coldly so much that even the walls went icy. The redhead's phone vibrated in his pocket, and without even checking, he started to the door. "I'll be home later tonight." They heard the door slam behind him. Tobi was speechless – if anything, he was hurt.

He was hurt, because it was true. He hated it when he got such a jab to his feelings, but didn't know what to do about it. He sat back down on his bed and Chikako remained where she stood.

"…He isn't wrong, you know." Tobi answered with silence. "I don't know what kind of life you've lived, or if anything you've been through has to do with it at all, but you act like there are no good people out there!" The blonde had enough of him ignoring her; she marched in front of him and knelt to his eye level. "You stay cooped up in one spot even when all you talk about is travel and other places… are you just going to shut yourself away from everyone there too?" Her tone grew more harsh as she pressed on.

Tobi glanced at her. "It's not that I'm trying to keep myselfaway from people. I want to keep people away from me."

"But why?" She exclaimed. "Stop being so vague and just tell me! I won't even tell Sadami if that's what you—"

"If I did, everything would change!"

"How do you know that?"

"I just do! I can't explain how, but I know! I always know how things will turn out, because I know what makes sense! I suggest you stop thinking with your feelings so much and look at it my way."

Chikako glowered; she stood up, but she didn't leave the room. She tried to figure out what the best thing was to say to Tobi, but came to no conclusions. There was no breaking the ice with this glacier. "Sadami loves you, you know he does. That's why he gets so scared. He lost his father not even a year ago!"

"You act like I don't know what that feels like. I lost a mother… she took her own life!" Chikako flinched at that notion and pressed her hand to her lips. "I think about it every day, how I could have made it better, how I could've stopped it… but what it all boils down to is that once someone starts caring, they're vulnerable. And when they leave, it's a tragedy!" Tobi quickly ducked his head down, he bit his lip and tried to hold it all together. "Everyone leaves eventually. I don't know how or when, but they do. And it's never for the better; it's because something happens to them." The blonde couldn't believe it; was he…? She watched him stop, he pulled at his hair and kept his face hidden. Howl stood up and tried to kiss his cheek. When he sat upright to push the Spitz away, Chikako saw the tear creeping down his face.

She never thought she'd see the day… Chikako didn't say a word so that Tobi couldn't protest when she tried to slide her arms around him. But that didn't stop him – he shoved her off and stood up as soon as her skin brushed against his. Chikako relented and tried again and again, begging him. Tobi was equally persistent, trying to push her out the room. All he needed was a few seconds to recompose. But Chikako dragged him out to the hall with her, the two grew aggressive; and the gesture now felt more forced than affectionate.

"Please!" Tobi finally shouted. "Don't touch me! Don't hold me!" Even when he was close to breaking, he only showed what chagrin she gave him. Chikako teared up as well. Not because she was resonating with him like that, but because she was frustrated. Infuriated at this point. She'd had enough of this, and she knew Tobi had as well. Chikako constricted herself tightly from behind Tobi, he was losing the will to fight her off as his emotions tore him apart – he could only hold back so much at once. "Stop! Just— get off!" They both sunk to the floor; tears poured from the both of them. Chikako twitched and hyperventilated while Tobi just let tears roll from his eyes; he had one hand gripping Chikako's, now not sure he wanted her off of him. "You can't fix it." He breathed. "Nothing can fix it." Chikako stopped and took a breath. "My heart's broken and it's rotten and it feels like I've been carrying this empty husk inside of me!"

Tobi had already said more than he was comfortable with, but he spoke almost mechanically while he was emotional – his heart took over for once; rotten or not, it wanted to speak. It wasn't the first time all of his pent-up feelings came flooding out so suddenly. But he never wanted to relive that time.

He tried to keep his mind from going there, but it was out of his control. He'd locked himself in the bathroom the morning he and Sadami were supposed to be getting ready for school; he was living with them at that time, they became his guardians after Motoka passed away.

The impulse had come out of nowhere; he was able to play off being fine even when Sadami knew something was wrong. Tobi was only sixteen when he found Motoka – Sadami was still twelve. Tobi wanted to spend one last birthday with him; that was his mindset at the time.

Now here he as claiming he had a broken heart. He'd nearly betrayed the very boy who kept Tobi company at night after Motoka's passing, just to make sure he slept all right or was there to let him cry with if he needed it.

To this day, Tobi knew he'd never been fair to him. He'd never done as well by him as Sadami had. He tried his best, always, but Tobi didn't understand what he did to deserve having everything taken away once he showed it. His lips noiselessly moved, more tears escaping, "Mom." She was his everything, but he was her undoing. That's how it always went. It was silent between the two in their huddled position together, rocking gently until they could hardly see or breathe. Chikako wouldn't move – she wouldn't let any harm find him again.

...

The two lied together in his bed, not saying a word. He was on his side, just gazing, wandering in his mind. Chikako peered over his shoulder, made sure that he wasn't still crying. She scooted away to give him space.

"Chikako," Tobi abruptly began, "…thank you." He didn't hear her say anything, nor did he look to see her reaction; but he felt her curl up closer, pressing her cheek against his.

"Aishiteru, Tobi-kun." She whispered. "You're my family." Something about the warmth she exuded, or perhaps the maternal affection in her tone, took Tobi back to his old home – on a morning in October of 2025. He remembered not sleeping well the night before, the strangest thing to remember – he even remembered his old routine for school.

Tobi went to Komae High School, so he had to be up extra early to take a train across town and then catch his bus. It was worth it, since it was the one school he dreamt of getting into. He'd spent countless hours into his application essays and prepped endlessly for the interview, doing mock ones with Motoka.

He used to be up by five; it was usually still dark out. But he never woke Motoka up until about six or six-thirty, depending on how tired she was the prior evening. He'd shower first, everything involving the bathroom came first, he remembered. Then he'd make breakfast for himself, cook something for Motoka and then put all of her belongings out for her to find so that she didn't have to worry about forgetting anything, and then he'd finally get his uniform on and head out.

That particular morning, though, Tobi peered into Motoka's bedroom before getting in the shower – it had been an awful night before, Tobi knew he was to blame… he was the one who convinced her to let one of her brothers come visit; that's what led to their fight, and he was powerless to stop it. But things seemed fine; she was fast asleep. Once he was ready to go, it was six-fifteen, so he decided to check on her one last time and get her up for work.

"Mom," he cracked the door back open, "I'm going now; I left your plate in the microwave." Motoka hardly stirred… in fact, she did hardly anything. He didn't hear her breathing and wondered how hard she was sleeping. "Mom." He called in a little louder. Tobi grew nervous – he tensed up and worried she was still upset. Tobi remembered the very moment he knew she was dead — right when he flipped her onto her back without much effort from him, her eyes were glossed over and half-open, drool stringing from her lip.

His first instinct was to make sure she just wasn't sick or having some kind of spell, but that didn't mean he wasn't frantic. "Mom?" He held her face, checked her for a pulse and heartbeat. This wasn't happening; it was a nightmare! Oh, please, dear God, let it all be in his head! He crawled onto the bed, he tried to resuscitate her, hardly getting any breath into her lungs since he'd already started choking on his own tears. He pushed on her chest, all in vain. Finally, he cried for her, begged for her as he held her.

Tobi didn't know what to do after that – instead of just calling for help, he ran out the house. He darted to the Akiyamas and broke down hysterically, frightening all of them. It was no better when he told them what was happening. Asa called the paramedics, he held both Sadami and Tobi when they watched the paramedics bring out her body. Tobi felt his knees crumple, positive that he was screaming as loud as he could, but no noise escaped his throat. Asami was in equal hysterics, but her feelings were much clearer to everyone around her. Sadami took Tobi's hand and squeezed it. He tried to let him hide his face into his shoulder so he could cry, but Tobi was suddenly detached – his eyes dried although he face was flushed and stained with tears.

He'd cried so much that no one could tell the difference whether his eyes were just bloodshot or not. Not even the authorities who questioned him when he found her.

"We found a case of ibuprofen under the bed, some of it was spilled out. We can perform an autopsy, but I…" The man stopped and sighed; it was the first time a stranger felt sorry for the poor young man, "I think we know what might have happened." Tobi was at the police station, dazed and staring at the floor. He sat before two men. "Did she show signs of instability or depression?" Tobi kept thinking about how she'd been so excited for him when he got accepted into Komae. "Young man?"

Motoka always rejoiced at his happiness, took care of him when he was sick, and encouraged his ideas. When he told her he wanted to go to Russia one day, she ordered him that music box from Moscow for his birthday. When he told her he wanted to major in philosophy, she became eager and urged him to do it. They were together for eight years, eight years of growing more content with himself. Eight magical years.

He had someone to bond over books and picking apart stories with, someone to get annoyed by when she coddled him, someone who grew overprotective if he even mentioned finding a girl attractive. Motoka had someone to raise and share her pain with, more so, someone who healed that pain. Motoka was infertile – after three miscarriages and a divorce, she'd nearly given up on true happiness for herself… then Tobi suddenly came along, who was just as scared and lonely.

It truly was too much of a blessing.

"Young man."

Tobi snapped out of his thoughts and looked up at them – they simply believed his scarlet eyes were just from exhaustion, not close enough to question it. "W-What was the question?"

"Do you think there was any event that led to this?" Tobi then told them about the week prior…